April 4, 2011

At First Blush

“Greater flamingos primp, preen, and even apply makeup, according to researchers from Spain’s Doñana Biological Station who are unlocking the secret to how the birds restore their color when their feathers fade. Flamingos pale after their chicks hatch, but their pigment returns when they dab oil on their plumes to make them pinker and more attractive to mates, says ornithologist and project leader Juan Amat. The carotenoid-rich crustaceans the birds eat give them their pink plumage, but the oil produced by their glands also contains the compound, helping to imbue their feathers with a deep coral tint. Using telescopes and a color scale, the researchers discovered that the birds had the deepest coloring during the mating season, when they increasingly use their beaks to apply the oil to their feathers. “We found that the more colorful flamingos were the first to start breeding,” he says, “and we knew that flamingos that starting breeding earlier have higher breeding success.” Other bird species have their own line of cosmetics. Bearded vultures, for example, coat their feathers in mud to change their tinge, potentially helping them woo mates.”—Susan Cosier

Audubon Magazine.